A quasi-objective morality without God: the anti-arbitrariness principle

Hi, as an atheist I have been watching several debates with William Lane Craig and others, and it started me thinking, especially about morality. At this moment I still doubt about the existence of an objective morality and I doubt that morality requires God. I think we can take a fairly objective morality that is based on an anti-arbitrariness principle.

 

Arbitrariness

There is arbitrariness about X if we can ask a meaningful and nontrivial question: “Why X and not for example, Y or Z?” and if this question cannot be answered by a rule which does not explicitly refer to X (or if there is no reason why X would be so special). The question is meaningful when Y and Z belong to the same set or category as X (and are therefore not something completely different) and the question is non-trivial if Y and Z are not simply “non-X”.

Sometimes arbitrariness is unavoidable in the sense of logically impossible to avoid it. The anti-arbitrariness principle says that we have to avoid all avoidable arbitrariness. If one thing goes for X, then it must also apply to all Y and Z that are equal to X (belong to the same set as X) according to a rule, unless the result becomes inconsistent or impossible.

First we have to look whether the anti-arbitrariness principle is itself arbitrary and therefore defeats itself. The answer is no. Of course we can always ask the trivial question: “Why be against arbitrariness and not against non-arbitrariness?” But any other nontrivial question becomes meaningless. For example: “Why be against arbitrariness and not against apples or bananas?” Apples and bananas do not belong to the same category as arbitrariness.

 

Democracy of coherent ethical systems

As in science and mathematics, the anti-arbitrariness principle is also fundamental in ethics. Physical theories that describe our universe and axiomatic systems that describe mathematical structures are examples of coherent systems that are consistent and do not contain avoidable arbitrariness. The same goes for ethics, where we can construct coherent ethical systems based on fundamental principles, just like mathematical axioms or universal physical laws.

So everyone can construct their own coherent ethical system, and we can aim for a consensus or democratic compromise between everyone’s system by using a democratic procedure. In a democracy, everyone has one vote, or everyone’s vote is equally important, because we cannot say that our own vote (one coherent ethical system) is better than someone else’s. I cannot say that my coherent ethical system is better than yours if both our systems are equally coherent. I prefer my system, but I cannot impose my system onto you, because what would make me so special that I would be allowed to do that? And the same goes for you and everyone else. It would be an avoidable kind of arbitrariness if we claim that our own system is special without good reason.

What happens if someone constructs an incoherent ethical system that contains avoidable arbitrariness (for example a discriminatory system that says that you can arbitrarily choose your victims)? We can reject, exclude or oppose that incoherent ethical system, and that person cannot complain that his/her system is rejected and that s/he does not get a vote in the democratic procedure, because that person acknowledges that arbitrary exclusions or rejections are permissible by acknowledging that arbitrariness is permissible. After all, that person uses an arbitrary system. The person can only give a valid complaint or argument if s/he accepts the anti-arbitrariness principle. Without that principle, any critique becomes invalid. The impossibility to complain if one has an incoherent ethical system implies that coherent ethical systems gain a more objective or absolute status. Hence the quasi-objective morality implied by the anti-arbitrariness principle.

 

Universal rules

Anti-arbitrariness results in universal moral rules. The principle of rule universalism says that one must follow the rules that everyone (who is capable, rational and well informed) must follow in all morally similar situations, and that one may follow only the rules that everyone (who is capable, rational and well informed) may follow in all morally similar situations.

The question becomes: what counts as morally similar situations? Situations can be called similar if morally relevant properties of the situation are similar, and those morally relevant properties should not contain avoidable arbitrariness. Examples of morally relevant properties are: well-being (of all sentient beings who have a well-being), preferences (of everyone who has them) and rights (of everyone and everything).

 

Universal rights

Human rights are arbitrary: why should all and only humans get rights? What makes humans (including for example mentally disabled orphan children) so special? What morally relevant property do all and only humans possess? If you are allowed to arbitrarily exclude other individuals from having rights and if you are allowed to arbitrarily select a group of right holders (e.g. the biological group of humans), then so am I and so is everyone, and you cannot want that. If speciesism is permissible, then so is racism, sexism and all other forms of arbitrary discrimination, and we cannot want that.

So instead of asking the question: “who gets all the basic rights?” we have to ask the question: “which rights should be given to everyone and everything, without arbitrary exceptions?” Everything really implies everything: electrons, planets, plants, animals, humans, computers, clouds,… This guarantees that all possible kinds of arbitrary discrimination are excluded.

If we give the basic right not to be killed to everything and everyone in the universe, we are not allowed to kill plants for food. But sentient beings cannot want that, and plants do not have a will, so they don’t care about not being killed because they do not have the mental capacity to care (they don’t experience anything so they even don’t feel or know if they are alive or dead). So we can consider basic rights such as the right not to be killed against one’s will, the right not to be confined against one’s will, the right not to be used as a means against one’s will.

With these rights, we can do whatever we like with things that do not possess a will, such as plants and individual living cells, because one cannot treat something against its will if it has no will. So for non-sentient objects (that have no subjective experience of a will), the basic rights are always trivially satisfied. We always respect the basic rights of non-sentient beings for 100%. For sentient beings (for example vertebrate animals and probably some other animals) the rights become nontrivial. These rights result in for example a vegan lifestyle. Abortion would be permissible because the embryo does not yet have a will (it therefore cannot be killed against its will) and the mother has a right not to be used by the embryo as a means (as a reproduction machine) against her will.

The only human right would be a right to be human, but that right is as meaningless as a right to be white or a right to be man. Ethical systems with non-universal rights are not permissible, because these systems contain avoidable arbitrariness.

 

The golden rule

A variation of the golden rule that we encountered several times before, is: “If you are allowed to do something, then so am I”, or more precisely: “If you are allowed to do something, then you must be able to want that everyone may do the symmetrically equivalent thing.” The symmetrical equivalence consists of a similar act by which the description of the pronouns “you” or “your” are exchanged with “I/he/she”, “me/him/her” or “my/his/her”. The positions of you and someone else are completely reversed. Here are some examples that illustrate this rule and demonstrate that we can deduce a lot from this rule.

We can easily derive things that you are not allowed to do, because you do not want them to be done to you. For example: if you may hit my cheek, I may hit your cheek. If you may impose your rules on others, others may impose their rules on you. If you may forbid homosexuality because you find it unclean, unholy or disgusting, then someone else may forbid something that you like and he finds unholy, for example playing guitar. If you may use vague or arbitrary reasons to justify your behavior that I don’t like, I am allowed to use vague reasons as well to justify my behavior that you don’t like. If you may say that we should follow the Bible because the Bible is the true word of God, I may say that we should follow the Bhagavat Gita as the true word of Krishna. If you may say that your moral intuitions are better than mine, I may say that mine are better than yours. If you may arbitrarily choose your victims, I may arbitrarily choose my victims.

We can also easily derive things that you are allowed to do, because you can want that others do the symmetrically equivalent behavior. For example: if you may eat the food that you bought, then I am allowed to eat the food that I bought.

Some derivations require more work. For example if you may kill a living being to eat, can I also kill a living being? You do not want me to kill you to eat. But you will still be able to kill a plant to eat. So you’re going to have to define a group of living beings that we should not kill and eat. For example, your relatives and friends. But if you may say that we are not allowed to eat your preferred group of friends and relatives, then I may prefer my group that might exclude you, which means I can eat you. If you may kill someone who does not belong to your family and friends, then everyone else may kill anyone who does not belong to their own circle of friends. You cannot want that. So you must define a different group. Perhaps the group of humans and dogs? But if you can determine that one should not eat anyone who belongs to the group of humans and dogs, I may decide that we should not eat anyone belonging to the species of pigs or chickens. Or I may decide that we should not eat someone belonging to the classes of mammals, birds or fish. Then you must accept that you are not allowed to eat meat and fish. But if I may decide that we should not kill animals to eat, then you may decide that we should not kill plants to eat, and I do not want that. So I cannot just define the group of animals. We cannot say that we may kill a living being if that living being does not belong to the group of relatives and friends, the group of people and dogs, the group of mammals and fish or the group of animals. So how may we decide who or what we may kill to eat? By not looking for what we may not kill, but by looking for what we may not kill against its will. So if you are not allowed to kill someone against his or her will, then neither am I. That means I may not kill you against your will. But you and I may still kill a plant, because a plant has no will and therefore cannot be treated against its will.

A final example: if you may follow your ethic, are racists allowed to follow their racist ethic? Are pedophiles, rapists and religious fundamentalists allowed to follow their ethics? You cannot want that. But the ethical systems of racists, pedophiles, rapists and religious fundamentalists contain inconsistencies, avoidable arbitrariness, unscientific beliefs and vague principle. So if your ethical system is more coherent than others (if your ethical system does not contain any inconsistencies, ambiguities and avoidable arbitrariness), then you can say that your ethical system is better than others and then you may oppose the incoherent systems of others.

 

The fundamental ethical formula

With the anti-arbitrariness principle we can derive many rules, such as the golden rule. Another expression that we can derive may be called the fundamental ethical formula, which can be used as a good basic starting point in ethics: everyone must follow those moral rules of which everyone can want that everyone follows them, in all possible worlds.

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Technicaly a scruple is when you take a moment to evaluate your intuitive/automatic answer to a moral/ethical problem (stop for a moment and consider the validity of your future action and/or other options). This relates to the phrase "he has no scruples" which, as far as I know means either "he's unable to evaluate/reevaluate his decisions" or "he always takes the easy/low path when facing difficult decisions".

In common use however (per unseen's every day language) a scruple is encountering/throwing out a difficult question (often outlandish or exceptional or even humerous) to test and/or explore ones sense of morality/ethics. 

This fills up, what I believe, are the vast majority of the everyday usage of moral/ethical. These terms here are totally interchangable. Is it moral/ethical to do what I'm about to do? Is it moral/ethical to do A instead of B (...C, D, E...)

If the scruple deals with a specific profession or a clear concrete code of conduct...then you should probably use ethics if you want to avoid confusion.

Otherwise...you can use either. Nothing will change whether you call it a moral dilemma or ethical dilemma or the morraly correct answer/ ethical response.

According to Jim Jefferies we only need one rule:
"Don't be a Cunt."
Hi Gregg, this response appeared 4 times. I'm guessing you had a computer hiccup, so I deleted the other three. After all, one rule should really be singular :)

And also, there's only one of those on a person. 

Four would be too many.  Or would it? ????

I heard it "Don't be a dick."

I heard it as "Be the ball..."

Ha, I need to admit here how I shape my own definitions of some words, especially when it comes to philosophy and practice of religion. I think the word spiritual has a place in our language, even when not referring to religion, because I know the feeling of it, and it's "real" enough in humans to be measurable in a brain scan. I'm (perhaps too often) assuming that some aspects of soft science will gel into harder science, over time.

Ditto for ethics vs morality. I think (perhaps too often) of morality as it must have existed before we had language sophisticated enough to discuss it, i.e. having animal (or at least primate) bases; codes of behavior spread and influenced by body language, including facial expressions. I think of ethics coming later, when they could be discussed and disseminated in writing, mostly to facilitate successful transactions between people and communities.

I don't know if scripture when written would be considered moralizing and/or ethics-defining, but it seems clear (to me) that scripture is too disorganized and ambiguous to be considered as a modern, comprehensive, usable form of ethics. And then again on top of ethics in terms of "official codification" and authority, civil law tops ethics in most modern countries. Sharia law is counter to that kind of civil modernisation, interpretable somewhat arbitrarily by whoever has leadership at the moment, and (to be blunt) is a regression to less civilized, more moralistic times.

"Ethicalizing" (if that word is even used much) is different in our context (especially at TA) from "moralizing". I would say TA has codified ethics, while morals are left to individual discretion.

Back to the topic at hand, if I could summarize what I meant to say [that started this back and forth wrt definitions] in just one sentence... Any moral, ethical, and civil law system has some kind of arbitrariness built in that serves to add consistency to behavioral expectations and predictability of adjudication, but the arbitrariness of each is most apparent at the level of morality (esp. scripture), then ethics (esp. business), then civil law. Even when civil law is customized to the state level, at least it's editable by transparent process. 

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